Month: July 2014

The Gods Are Frowning

by Jim Bevan

Despite invoking the gods in its title, there’s hardly any intelligent design in Gods Will Be Watching. From the start the game doesn’t do much to impress. The story is an overdone space opera where a galaxy-spanning government force (the Constellar Federation) is embroiled in conflict with a rebel group (Xenolifer), a struggle that can only be overcome by one man, Sergeant Abraham Burden. Even a clichéd plot can work if the writers subvert the formula or create enough intrigue to draw you into their world, but this game does neither. Characters frequently discuss the evils they’re dedicated to fighting against (or in some cases for): the Constellar Federation’s policy of treating non-human species as slaves; Xenolifer’s acts that could be labeled terrorism or freedom fighting; the barely touched-upon Hollistic Empire that is described as a brutal, despotic regime. Yet none of this is ever shown. Even for a game intended to showcase minimalism, the rule of “show, don’t tell” should still apply.

Developer Deconstructeam promotes Gods Will Be Watching as a title centered on “despair, commitment, and sacrifice” yet fails to realize any of these concepts. Throughout the game’s seven missions, Sergeant Burden is faced with incredibly difficult decisions that affect those around him (usually his crew members or hostages). Scenarios typically involve managing rations, keeping team morale high, or intimidating enemies to make them give up important information. There are several moments, most notably in situations when resources are low, when the player is presented with the possibility that allowing some to die for the sake of others is the best option. Should a few suffer and perish for the greater good? Is killing one so that many might live cruel or pragmatic?

These questions represent a great moral dilemma that video games rarely address. However, the potential ethical quandaries are rendered moot by one massive mistake. If any member of Burden’s team dies in one chapter, they will be present in the next chapter simply because the plot requires them to have a role. This design does no justice to the concepts of sacrifice and the needs of many versus the needs of few, removing any possible drama or suspense when it looks like an ally may die. Since none of your allies can be killed for good, you only need to focus on keeping Burden alive to complete a chapter. It’s impossible to convey themes of commitment and sacrifice when the central priority is looking out for yourself.

As a final narrative failure, all of the characters are bland. Only two are given vague attempts at personality and backstory, both very poorly executed. Sergeant Burden, the protagonist, is nothing more than what fan fiction writers would call a “Marty Stu,” practically flawless and insufferably dull. He inspires awe from allies and enemies, makes all the heroic decisions, and has a dark, mysterious backstory that makes absolutely no sense and is never explained. Liam, the leader of Xenolifer, could have been interesting if the developers took the time to explore his motivations, that is, what pushed him from civil disobedience to planning mass murder. Burden even expresses sympathy for Liam’s cause, hoping to sway him from violence, but their interactions boil down to little more than trite pseudo-philosophical banter on the nature of humanity and what lines must be crossed for the good of all. Every side character is completely forgettable, existing solely to spout exposition or heavy-handed social and political ideologies. Making the dialogue more insufferable are the numerous spelling and grammar errors in the English translation, from stilted sentences and incorrect tense use to absurd lines like “We’ll have to dosify smartly our efforts.”

Gameplay is an odd hybrid of point-and-click adventure and turn-based strategy. In each chapter you have to make several decisions, observe their outcomes after execution, then tailor the next set of choices based on the results. Time management, job delegation, rationing supplies, and behavioral modification play a role in the outcomes obtained. It’s a clever concept ruined by the developers allowing for random negative outcomes. Several actions show the probability of success based on preparation, but even if there’s a 90 percent chance that a bluff will deceive an interrogator or prevent a computer’s security system from being hacked, you could still fail and suffer a setback.

Making things worse are the setbacks that come as complete surprises. In the first chapter you need to watch over a group of hostages, intimidating them so they don’t revolt while keeping them calm enough to avoid making a suicidal run for freedom. Ideally their body language and statements should make it easy to see how far on either end of the spectrum they are and whether more cruelty or compassion is required to keep them in line, but sometimes hostages will attempt to run without warning, even if they seemed relatively relaxed. Chapter 4 presents the threat of wild animals that can raid your camp and kill everyone if there isn’t enough ammunition to drive them off, but there’s no warning about what nights they’ll strike and no chance to prepare. I could understand if this scenario were intended to be a metaphor about how even the best plans can go awry due to events you cannot control. But in a game that emphasizes the importance of planning and strategy, it gives the impression that you’re wasting your time, that no matter how well you’re doing you can die whenever the game wants you to.

The most annoying part of failing a mission is starting the entire chapter from the beginning. There’s no chance to manually save, no guarantee that a strategy that almost carried you to the end the first time will work again. During the second chapter when Burden is interrogated under threat of torture, his captor repeats questions that have already been asked and answered because the section needs to continue until its predetermined end point. The final section, the battle between Burden and Liam, is drawn out to the point of frustration. Liam has several attacks that can kill you in one hit, but they are never telegraphed and always follow the same pattern. Defeating him requires you to die several times to memorize the order of his attacks and know how to counter them. This battle’s poor design is another example of how luck and endurance are more important to victory than skill. There are also several bugs that can lead to mission failure and force a replay of a chapter. The worst instance was when I had to play a Mastermind-inspired game to find a cure for the Medusea virus, figuring out the right compounds and the order they need to go in. I got three of them in the right locations but was told that the final compound, while correct, was out of sequence, even though it was in the only remaining open spot.

Visuals are very unappealing. I’m not a snob who’s opposed to pixel art and games with a retro aesthetic, but some effort must be put into the art. Character models have nothing resembling faces, the levels are either dull wilderness or generic spacecraft that have dozens of monitors lining their walls, and the limited animations make it difficult to read body language. Sound design is just as unimpressive, nothing but a collection of electronic clicks, beeps, and other assorted effects from the Atari 5200 era.

The entirety of Gods Will Be Watching can best be summarized by its second chapter, the torture scene. It’s a long, painful, repetitive experience that expects you to ride it out to the end no matter how bad things get. Gods Will Be Watching’s sadism is not worth your money or the hours it will steal from you with its tedium.

Game Critics Are Not Authorities

by Jed Pressgrove

Yes, it’s true: Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid wrote an embarrassing article about Smash Bros. Understandably, Chris Wagar saw through Holmes’ pretense. But instead of responding only to Holmes, Wagar wrote an article titled “Tripping on Air: Why Game Journalists Can’t Describe Games” that says game reviewers aren’t skilled and explains why the game journalism model doesn’t favor reviewers with skills. The conclusion is that game critics couldn’t write about the in-depth mechanics of a game if their lives depended on it.

I’m not interested in correcting Wagar’s generalization. Even though skilled reviewers exist, there are enough bad articles to justify his broad complaints. The more important point is that Wagar doesn’t speak for all readers when he says reviews don’t help people “determine if the game is likely to be something they are interested in.” Wagar is sorely mistaken when he suggests in-depth mechanics are what “average” gamers want to read about. For example, he criticizes “typical” reviews of Ultra Street Fighter IV that do not reflect the words of fighting game pros:

In a recent interview, six of Japan’s top players discussed the changes in Ultra Street Fighter 4. It’s not a surprise that the number of frames of advantage time comes up frequently in this discussion.

Wagar is either being ignorant or dishonest with the expectation that reviews should go this deep into Ultra Street Fighter IV in order to inform the “average” gamer. Street Fighter is the primary series that helped build a wide fighting game audience, and most of that audience is not comprised of “Japan’s top players.” No one could legitimately call me a “top player” in Street Fighter IV, but I have won the majority of online Street Fighter IV battles I’ve had with “average” players. Yet amateur Street Fighter players — and we must use the term “amateur” loosely, as many of these fans have been playing Street Fighter for years — show a genuine love for the game despite their numerous losses in competitive play. If Wagar really believes that all of these people needed reviewers to break down Ultra Street Fighter IV frame by frame, he is out of his mind. When Wagar says “average level players of these games are typically capable of discussing these things,” he neglects to mention that being “capable” of discussing such things is not the same as discussing these things on a regular basis or, further, seeking in-depth commentary on these things (as the pros might).

I’ve only been a game critic for about a year, so based on the majority of my life with all of my “average” friends, gamers don’t necessarily want to read piles of in-depth text in game reviews. In fact, early game journalism conditioned me and many others to be more interested in listing parts of a game — graphics, sound, control, etc. — and how these parts can affect a review score that represents the overall quality of the game. Given the success and influence of Metacritic, a site that averages and shares game scores across publications, Wagar’s insistence that in-depth descriptions of mechanics are what consumers need or want is highly suspect. (Many readers just ask for down-to-earth honesty.)

Wagar also lacks imagination when it comes to what game criticism or video games can be. His limited view of what games and game criticism should address (namely, in-depth mechanics) leads to the following statements:

Yet the problem remains that when I read the typical game review, I have no ability to tell from their writing whether the game is good or not and I am forced to rely on my friends or longer segments of gameplay footage to help give me an idea how the game actually works, and feels to play. Describing gameplay in an explicit way that people can understand is hard and not well explored, so critics and academics tend to fall back on elements of film or literature theory that have dissolved into the public consciousness, and vague opinions on whether the game feels nice or not. This is part of why there is a general trend of the gaming press highly praising works with large narrative content.

Oddly, Wagar says he is “forced” to talk to his friends or watch gameplay footage (is it really so bad to talk to your friends about a game?). At the same time, his last sentence contains some truth. Very often, bad games like Always Sometimes Monsters will receive praise just for containing or promising certain narrative ideas. However, Wagar overlooks that some people might simply prefer more focus on narrative. Wagar also overlooks those who might equally value mechanics and narrative. I also highly doubt that people who value “next-gen” graphics over everything would care about any of Wagar’s thoughts. Gamers have very different views about games, so it’s no surprise that game critics are not authorities on everything. In fact, game critics are not authorities on anything — I don’t care how knowledgeable or skilled they are. Critics are only there to be read, considered, and questioned.

So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!

Always Full of Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

Always Sometimes Monsters spreads the dangerous idea that humans are horrible. Developer Vagabond Dog’s exploitation of modern working-class anxieties and paranoia should not be celebrated, and its disregard for morality and diversity should not be interpreted as “ambitious.” Always Sometimes Monsters preaches the exact opposite of ambition: stay sad, stay mad, stay bad.

Vagabond Dog paints a dog-eat-dog world, but this truth isn’t presented as a realization through experience — it’s a presupposition, a demented rulebook by which we can judge our idiotic actions. Always Sometimes Monsters blandly states upfront that “In this system there can be no right or wrong,” rejecting the social conviction of the citizens who react to your decisions in Fallout. Like the film Pulp Fiction and its imitators, Always Sometimes Monsters packages human life as a bundle of unexpected, dark connections. As such, your decisions in the game merely build a unique portrait of misery and immaturity.

Framing its main story as a narrative from a bum in an alley, Always Sometimes Monsters unwisely suggests that we should sentimentalize our bad choices. No matter what sex or racial group you choose, you play as a writer who desperately pines for an ex one year after breaking up. The quest is to travel across the country in order to arrive at your ex’s wedding. As this aspiring but lazy writer, you face poverty, hunger, and preposterous moments of decision making.

The story quickly exposes its take on life as a sham. For example, if you take a job at an advertising company, every member of the company asks you for advice on how to deal with a recently fired and unstable employee. Another scenario involves a friend who is hopelessly addicted to heroin; to get medical treatment for him, you have to intimidate a doctor through violence. In another segment, you might become a major player in a conflict between a union leader and mayoral candidate (nevermind that you might have slept on dirty mattresses in alleys nights before). While these situations might create a lot of intriguing material, their utter ridiculousness do not support the game’s conceit that we operate in a morally undefined world.

Several critics have praised Always Sometimes Monsters for offering characters of different sexes and racial groups, but the diversity is mainly there to impress you as options. The game shares virtually nothing about social reality or identity. By largely reducing race, for instance, to insults from unlikable, unrelatable non-playable characters, Always Sometimes Monsters puts the blame on random individuals rather than systems of oppression that can affect anyone’s perception or behavior (see Mainichi). Vagabond Dog’s approach to gender and race strokes the egos of people who think they’re above discrimination and prejudice.

Always Sometimes Monsters also fails at exploring survival and work. The game offers the pretense that you need to work to buy food so that you can eat for stamina, but more than halfway through the game, I learned you can survive fine without eating at all. More significantly, Vagabond Dog doesn’t show an understanding of labor. Even though the game might lead you to do annoying jobs for measly paychecks, the narrative fails to touch on our conflicted existence as natural laborers like the superior Actual Sunlight. At the very least, it’s an insult to writers that the protagonist completely pissed away a lucrative opportunity to write.

Indeed, the general immaturity of the game reveals a lack of seriousness about the subject matter that it wants you to take seriously. Early in the game, you can pick up dogs and give them to a dubious institution for money. But later on, you might wind up boxing one of the abused dogs in a ring! Moreover, the game’s obsession with feces further illustrates that its moral sermon is better suited for a toilet than a diverse audience.

The most disappointing aspect of Always Sometimes Monsters is how flippantly it views its most poignant scenes. In the first city, you have the opportunity to have dinner with a lonely old woman who shares stories about her dead husband, but your character takes no lasting wisdom or respect from the visit. Even more disappointing is when the game raises points about spirituality, redemption, and providence before promptly forgetting them. When a preacher asks you if you believe, you can say “Yes,” which then places a victorious car race in the context of a miracle. The game’s subsequent scenes, however, do not acknowledge this experience. Always Sometimes Monsters’ smug dishonesty is a sin of storytelling.

Mountain Isn’t a Mountain, and You’re Not God

by Jed Pressgrove

“God” was the first text I saw when I started Mountain. That’s a powerful word, but others have reported seeing phrases like “What does love look like?” In any case, the game gives you words and phrases with a blank pad. After I saw “God,” I didn’t start drawing with my mouse, so a message eventually appeared at the bottom of the screen: “Hint: Draw Something.” I’m sure we all could think of less smart-assed ways to introduce a novelty game.

After you submit your drawings, the game generates a mountain and proclaims “You are God,” as if gamers and critics need such a boost. You can rotate the mountain, zoom in and out, and play notes on the bottom rows of your keyboard. Things change in the game with time. Day becomes night, night becomes day, sometimes you’ll see rain, sometimes you’ll see snow, and sometimes you’ll see random objects hitting the mountain. You’ll hear a chime when the game is ready to share messages, such as “I’m all about this deep black night,” yet another phrase I could imagine coming from a smart-ass.

At Kill Screen, David Cox logically discusses Mountain in the context of god games (e.g., Populus). Cox argues that Mountain has “an approach more in line with deism—the belief that, while there is a god, he’s probably not too interested in us.” A review at Retro Future Man goes further: “Like a real deity your influence seems to have little to no impact on the world as it is.”

Interestingly, these old reflections about God seem to result in new marketing language. “If you’re going to pick up a mountain simulator this year, make it Mountain,” says Retro Future Man. “We ask, but Mountain says little back,” says Cox. But can these potential catchphrases compete with Mountain developer David OReilly’s other trophies, which include the nauseating “MOTY (Mountain of the Year)”?

“What am I doing?” is a question Mountain shared as my fingers frantically tapped the keyboard in search of that elusive good note. The game can clearly make connections with players, but these connections might be partially based on one’s desire for a “different type of game” rather than fully based on entertaining or edifying qualities of Mountain. At best, the communication between player and game in Mountain is highly open to interpretation. At worst, the communication is muffled. All of this can lead to the following scenario:

Some say Mountain is a good or great game essentially because it’s different. This group typically doesn’t mind different interpretations because that’s part of the game’s appeal. However, this group might label those who think Mountain is the equivalent of OReilly pissing as shortsighted or dumb. Of course, those who think Mountain is piss might label those who enjoy Mountain as shortsighted or dumb. Since no one can say what Mountain is ultimately “about,” any discussion and debate will remain somewhat silly.

Of course, others might say Mountain is just a mountain that you can appreciate. In that case, I’d rather think about the mountains in Idaho. Those mountains never said things that sounded smart-assed to me.

Digging Past the Hype

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: I played this game on the 2DS.

Much has been said about Shovel Knight resembling an updated NES game. Whether parts of the game could have worked on the old system amounts to tech trivia and marketing. But that’s far from the silliest commentary: IGN asks, “Is Shovel Knight an early game of the year candidate?” Shovel Knight might have the polished shell of an NES game and the ardent support of critics, but it lacks the soul of a classic.

References to an NES “aesthetic” don’t explain why Shovel Knight is a marvel to watch. Those who compare Kojima’s Ground Zeroes to their favorite tracking shots might instead write books about Shovel Knight’s superior use of motion, framing, lighting, and setting. As you extinguish ghosts in one level, scores of unique portraits come into light (a shift that comments on the life-restoring effect of art). In one short sequence across a bridge, Shovel Knight upstages Limbo’s morbid, trendy use of silhouettes through unexpected color and grander purpose. Shovel Knight’s campfire sequences don’t merely recall Golden Axe’s bonus stage — they graphically evoke healing and, with occasional dreaming, anxiety. The game even manages to inspire joy through the gestures of individual townspeople. The heroism and struggles in Shovel Knight are simply exquisite, with an attention to detail that rivals Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Unfortunately, the profound emotional core of the visual storytelling cannot save the game’s lack of suspense and adventure. Shovel Knight has received a lot of good press for borrowing a little, as opposed to a lot, from Dark Souls. Instead of having a lives system, Shovel Knight has checkpoints in main stages that sort of work like the campfires in Dark Souls. If you die, you lose some of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint you reached, and you recover the treasure by getting back to where you died on the first try. However, this idea fails to make the game interesting or challenging for a few reasons:

1. You don’t even lose half your treasure when you die, so the stakes aren’t remotely as high as they are in Dark Souls, which takes all of your currency away when you die.

2. Stages in Shovel Knight tend to have four or five checkpoints, so death rarely puts you in a tough spot. Furthermore, you can exit any stage, regardless of whether you’ve beaten it, through a menu.

3. Despite dying several times on a couple of stages, I was never in need of treasure. I always had enough treasure for the upgrades I wanted/needed, which renders another feature of the game rather pointless: you can destroy a checkpoint for treasure with the trade-off of the checkpoint no longer working, but what difference does it make if you never need treasure?

In fact, Shovel Knight is at times insultingly obvious when it comes to finding treasure, items, and “secrets.” As in Castlevania, you can break certain walls with your primary weapon to find things, but in many cases Shovel Knight marks the exact part of a wall that you can break, robbing the player of discovery.

Similar to A Link Between Worlds, Shovel Knight plays like a dream and thus suffers from coasting. The Mega Man boss fights in Shovel Knight are great concepts that typically can’t withstand how souped up you are: near the beginning of the game, you get an item that renders you temporarily invincible. Of course, you need points to use special items (as in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but I rarely ran out of those points, which can be increased with upgrades via the easily located treasure. Shovel Knight is full of easygoing systems that undermine its potential as a satisfying experience — just another game that you play, not a quest that you conquer.

People should reconsider the absurd comparisons of Shovel Knight to Zelda II, a difficult (for most people) action game that never let you forget that you’re in a rough, vague world. A title can have elements from other games without resembling the essence of those games in practice. As such, all the beautiful visuals and music in Shovel Knight shouldn’t make us ignore its dubious distinction of being the most forgiving game influenced by both NES classics and Dark Souls. It’s almost as if Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight with the hope that we would forget some of the reasons why we cherish and remember certain games in the first place.